March 17, 2021

Mary Stewart's Wildfire at Midnight

Mary Stewart's Wildfire at Midnight

In this episode of Tart Words, we’re discussing Mary Stewart’s book Wildfire at Midnight and how she uses setting, genre, and plot in this story about mountain worship taken to the extreme.


In this episode of Tart Words, we’re discussing Mary Stewart’s book Wildfire at Midnight and how she uses setting, genre, and plot in this story about mountain worship taken to the extreme.

It was first published in 1956 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions.  

Description from Amazon:

The tense, twisty murder mystery which will have you on the edge of your seat, from the author of Madam, Will You Talk?
 
Following a heart-breaking divorce, Gianetta retreats to the Isle of Skye hoping to find tranquility in the island's savage beauty.
 
But shortly before her arrival a girl's body is found on the craggy slopes of the looming Blue Mountain, and with the murderer still on the loose, there's nothing to stop him from setting his sights on Gianetta next . . .

Takeaway for writers:

Wildfire at Midnight is set in Scotland’s Inner Hebrides. Gianetta Brook escapes the frenzy of London during Coronation Week and her busy life as a model in favor of the peace and quiet at a hotel on the remote Isle of Skye.  Using the bustle of London to contrast with the remote quiet of Skye, Mary Stewart infuses menace in every aspect of the unfamiliar setting for Gianetta. 

The Gothic aspect of romantic suspense is used to good effect to ratchet up the tension. Nicholas and Gianetta’s past relationship adds to the suspense as she wonders if he could be the killer, and if she’s safe if he is – or in more danger.

The plot moves from country inn to the mountains to the river and the boggy ground nearby, all within walking distance of the hotel. The hotel provides a false sense of security against the danger inherent in the mountains, where one death has already occurred and more will follow.

Exercises for writers:

Setting – How does the setting enhance your story? Do you have more than one setting, and if so, how do the different settings compare to each other? Do you use one as a counterpoint to the other?

Genre – How do you use reader expectations of your genre to surprise and delight your readers? After you’ve gotten the first draft complete, can you edit for maximum suspense? 

Plot – How have you established your plot to keep the reader from guessing who the killer is? Do you have red herrings and clues that lead your reader in one direction, while you keep the killer in front of them?

 

 

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Transcript

Transcribed by Otter.ai; Lightly edited by Linda. Please forgive any typos or grammatical errors.

Episode 105 - Wildfire at Midnight

13:58

 

Linda 00:00

Welcome to Tart Words. I'm your host, Linda Hengerer. And I'm a writer, a reader and a baker. I talk to writers about their latest book and what inspires them; chat with fellow author Suzanne Fox about what writers can learn from reading their favorite authors; and share fast and easy recipes for anyone looking for a sweet treat. Join me as I share tart bites, tart thoughts, and Tart Words. Today I'm talking with Suzanne Fox. She writes fiction and nonfiction, reviews books for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society 19, and works with authors to shape, publish, and market their work. Her handmade jewelry and digital art, including that used for the Tart Words Mary Stewart podcasts, is inspired by favorite books and authors. A graduate of the Columbia University MFA writing program, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. 

Find out more about Suzanne at www.bookstrategy.com and www.SocietyNineteenJournal.com

On this episode of Tart Words, we're discussing Mary Stewart's book Wildfire at Midnight, and how she uses setting, genre, and plot in this story about mountain worship taken to the extreme. It was first published in 1956 by Hodder & Stoughton and is now available in ebook editions. 

Description from Amazon: The tense twisty murder mystery which will have you on the edge of your seat from the author of Madam, Will You Talk? 

Following a heartbreaking divorce, Gianetta retreats to the Isle of Skye, hoping to find tranquility in the island’s savage beauty. But shortly before her arrival, a girl's body is found on the craggy slopes of the looming Blue Mountain. And with the murderer still on the loose, there's nothing to stop him from setting his sights on Gianetta next.

Welcome to the podcast. Suzanne, what do you think about that description? And how well it sort of sets the stage for what the reader is going to expect with the book.

 

Suzanne 02:12

You know, I think it raises a very interesting paradox. In a way I think it sets the stage for the plot and for what you know, romantic suspense, mystery. Even thriller writers are looking for very well, it you know, it encapsulates sort of the nugget of what the story is. I think one of the delights of Mary Stewart books for me is that she's excellent at all those things, she crafts, these very suspenseful mysteries that have wonderful action scenes and all sorts of suspenseful drama. And yet, the voice of the books and her writing generally is more nuanced than that suggests she's not a writer who's just, you know, writing a straightforward thriller type plot with no bells and whistles. Her writing is very evocative, very emotional, very good at evoking setting and things like that. And I think that that's one of the real strengths of the book that she marries a very briskly paced, suspenseful plot with a very rich prose style.

 

Linda 03:18

I agree. She and Dick Francis are two of my favorite writers and their writing styles are very different, but no less enjoyable for the differences. And I feel when I'm reading Mary Stewart's books that I am sinking into whatever setting she has created. They're very atmospheric. And in this book, where the Isle of Skye in Scotland is a remote location, I think she really sets the setting up as a threat to the character herself.

 

Suzanne 03:49

I think that that's right. I think it's interesting because she's Janet or Gianetta, depending on you know, who calls her anglicized name, or her original christened name, right is coming to Skye for a retreat, which, ironically, is the opposite of what she gets. But she's looking for a place that's very remote that's very peaceful, because she's been in London as a model. She's been, you know, exhausted by the round of her life, as well as all the frenzy around the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, which is taking place simultaneously. And so you have this outside urban world that you're never actually in in the novel, but that is used as a contrast to sky and I think what's amazing is the way that sky and its mountains particularly are evoked as both being very, very beautiful. There's just beautiful but again, brisk not interrupting the action descriptions of things like the water and the sunsets and the shape of these different mountains. And yet, obviously, it's a place of all sorts of danger, not least, that it's a place where you can fall off a mountain and die even before you get you know, a villain staying In the same hotel,

 

05:02

the craggy mountains are a threat to those who are not careful about where they're going. And as you said, aside from the murder, who I don't want to say he's actively hunting, but he definitely has ideas about who is respecting his mountains and who is not. And if you're not respecting his mountains, then you're on his hitless basically,

 

05:26

yes. And it's very hard to respect his mountains the way he wants you to, it turns out that there are all sorts of ways to offend his stance really, that these mountains are deities. So he very much, although you don't entirely understand this, this is revealed gradually, and I think a pretty skillful way, you know, he does have a very religious fervor about this place, and the meaning and power of these particular peaks. And so you don't need to do anything that is what would be considered offensive to someone else to get on his proverbial hit list, or his cut your rope list or his push list, as we might call it in this particular book.

 

Linda 06:07

And he strikes up a friendship with Gianetta in the beginning, and she finds out that the local girl was killed some little time before she arrived there. But she also finds out that all the guests except for herself, who were there currently, were there at the same time, the young girl disappeared, so any of the men and they're assuming that the killer is a man that any of the men who were staying there before and are there currently could be a suspect. And one of those men, interestingly enough, and disconcerting for Gianetta is her ex-husband, Nicholas.

 

Suzanne 06:47

And I think it this is a mixed genre book, in a certain sense. I mean, today, we are familiar as writers with a category of romantic suspense, but that name was not as commonly used at the time in the 60s that Stewart was publishing. These first books, if I'm recalling correctly, the book certainly existed. But you know, I don't know that it was looked on as much as being a sort of category. And for me, one of the things that's consistently satisfying about Stewart's writing is how well she wraps these different types of romance stories with the suspense stories with the mysteries. I also want to say real quickly that that thinking about Gianetta, when you said that about Nicholas, her husband, you know, we have your ex-husband, who you've ended things with, on our on a note of sort of misunderstanding and alienation shows up at the same place that you are going for a retreat, which is socially awkward, as well as, you know, not really conducive to having a retreat. So there's intrinsically this going to be what might or might not be a happy sort of romance theme. And then, as you say, we find out very quickly that there's been a particularly gruesome and ritual murder that's taken place extremely nearby. And we find that out quite quickly. But I would also say that it occurs to me that as a sort of third genre here that the book and most of Mary Stewart's books are also really coming of age novels in a way that the women that she writes about our technically adults, as with Gianetta, she has a successful career and she's been married, and yet they are, they're still in a way trying to find their true selves and to see the world around them accurately, you know, so that there's always the satisfying subtle arc of growth, I think takes place and part of the success of the Nicholas story character, her ex-husband, who I absolutely love, I think he's just a great romantic hero in interesting ways is that the what went wrong with her marriage was that they did not see each other accurately. And now she's thrown into the situation where she feels that she can't see anyone accurately because one of these likable people that she's staying in a hotel with because all of the men are likable man is going to turn out to be a murderer. 

 

Linda 09:11

And it's interesting to me also that the romance is between a divorced couple, you know, it's not a meet cute per se, where two people unknown to each other previously come together. It is a divorced couple, and we come to find out that they're being at the same hotel at the same time. It isn't quite as random as Gianetta believes at the beginning, but you're right, you know, they did see each other not as who they really are, but who but as who they thought, an idealized version of themselves, perhaps. And in Nicholas's case, he was thinking that Gianetta had more of her I think it was her great-grandmother who was a great beauty of her time and very hedonistic and had a, you know, kind of a wild reputation, because Gianetta also was a model and favored her great-grandmother in looks. I think he expected that more of her great-grandmother's characteristics were also part of Gianetta. When in reality, that was not the case at all. So here they are, several years later, after the unsuccessful marriage and the perhaps acrimonious divorce, and now they're back together see each other with clearer eyes,

 

Suzanne 10:27

I think that's absolutely true that they're getting behind the image. And certainly a life or death situation can do all sorts of things, to reveal one, and also to conceal one because for a significant proportion of the book, it looks entirely possible that Nicholas is the murderer, and he's a complex-enough character to make that feel credible. But yes, I think when you read in summary, that these are ex-spouses, you assume that they know each other better than they did. All right. But in fact, I think it's quite clearly depicted that they really only knew the surface of each other. And they were both disappointed and frightened by what they were finding out. And so there is a sense that these people are meeting afresh seeing each other more truly, but also perhaps having had this interim when even though Gianetta is not at all conscious of it, that maybe they have had time to miss this person. And probably, I think, to think I didn't try very hard to truly see him. So that you know, is interesting, but I think the whole question of how well do we know anyone works very well with his novel and it's very mysterious setting because that's the other thing that I think the setting works so well with it not just the literal and figurative edge of danger that these mountains have, but that this place with all these mountains peaks sort of jostling together is a place that you can't fully see that you can't fully know. And she uses that very well, that there's places that you can only see from the perspective of a ledge on one mountain. And so and the fog also works that way. Right that that there's a wonderful scene I don't know if this is it's one of my favorites, even though it's was also one of my worst nightmares. First of all, fishing, which is not my favorite Gianetta and a guide or fishing and you know, one moment that you can see everything just fine. And you can have a picnic lunch, and the next moment, a very stealthy fog, but a thick fog is there. You can't see anything. There is bog-like land and then you hear someone whispering your name. That's enough to keep you awake at night or give you nightmares.

 

Linda 12:32

Yeah, yes. As a representative of letting the reader know that danger lurks at every corner. That scene certainly takes care of that. And you're right, it is the stuff of nightmares.

 

Suzanne 12:44

Yeah, a final quick vote for a wonderful scene. That again, is a little bit of a tutorial on writing is a later scene where Gianetta is taking care of an injured climber and she's in her bedroom at the hotel, and it has so many features that are cozy and enclosed and warm and safe. And yet the danger of the situation is also brought out very convincingly. So I think throughout the book, it's like she's doing sort of masterclass in working with the tensions inherent in a place.

 

Linda 13:14

I think we'll end on that note, and thank you for talking about one of our favorite books. Thank you for joining me this week. To view the complete show notes and the links mentioned in today's episode, visit Tart Words.com/tart105. Before you go, subscribe to the podcast to receive new episodes when they're released. Subscribe now in the app you're using to listen to this podcast or sign up for email alerts through an easy signup form for bakers, readers and writers at Tart Words.com/About. Thank you again for joining me, Linda Hengerer for this episode of Tart Words.

Suzanne Fox

Guest

Author, editor, book reviewer, and book consultant Suzanne Fox earned her MFA in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts. Her first book, the memoir Home Life, was published by Simon & Schuster; appearing under the pseudonyms Suzanne Scott and Suzanne Judson, her women’s fiction novels have been published by Berkley Penguin Putnam and Harlequin. Suzanne works personally with writers in many genres on book structure and publication, reviews literary and mystery fiction for Publishers Weekly, edits the online journal Society Nineteen, and teaches workshops in memoir, fiction writing, and the creative process. Until recently a resident of Vero Beach, Suzanne now lives in North Carolina. More information about Suzanne can be found at www.sfoxarts.com.